Not that I don’t want faith. I’m jealous of the believers. But as a fallen away Methodist, I do not expect to emerge from all this a Catholic, although I admit some interior juggling is going on. To my surprise, I have become friendly with Mary. It started the night she stood by me through the storm, knowing full well I’m not a Catholic. Yet somehow, she seems more like Mary, my favorite aunt, than Santa Maria. – Frances, Under the Tuscan Sun
I too have fallen away from my christened Finnish Pentecostal religion. It is a struggle to sit through a fire and brimstone sermon and hear how much everything I believe in and love will send me straight to hell. Raising my hands and closing my eyes in rapture would seem like an act. Quite frankly, I’d rather have a cocktail and look at Chanel. I believe in science, evolution, and often have questioned whether it was an answered prayer to God or a product of a self fulfilling prophesy.
The last time a Christian friend who’s Facebook updates are bible quotes and praise messages asked me if I’d “found Jesus”, I sarcastically replied like an asshole hipster, “He’s missing?!?? Was it Al Queda? Those bastards!”
My late grandfather was a minister and missionary, so it would come as a surprise to many that my parents would have encouraged my sister and I to explore our own paths to God if we chose. There was a period in high school where I read about everything, delving into Wicca for a while. New Jersey was a great place to learn about religion because there were Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu kids in my school. Religious diversity was everywhere and I never really noticed until my family returned to upper middle class, suburban WASPy Illinois my senior year. When I was a freshman in college, I set off to Los Angeles. My roommate brought me to her Synagogue and welcomed me to celebrate the Jewish holidays with her family. It was brilliant! For many years I read and considered converting. At that same time, a neighbor gave me The Tibetan Book of the Dead and a beginners guide to Buddhism. The chanting and lessons from the Buddha captivated me because there was no worship. Exploration of other religions was embraced. Buddhism was then the reason I became a vegetarian in 1997. I loved it yet never really immersed myself into full, daily practice and active participation at a temple.
When my ex boyfriend, a semi-practicing Catholic, invited me to mass with his family, I went. At first I was confused and only knew of the bad reputation the media portrayed of priests and how so many artists spoke of how escaping their oppressive Catholic schools helped their creative process. My ex and everyone in his family had their own favorite saints. Idols, candles, holy cards were visible in their homes and all of Miami. It was fascinating. My favorite part of the whole experience was the post-mass breakfast of coffee and pan de bono at the nearby Colombian bakery. It was a family tradition and I loved every moment of it, pondering for the rest of the morning the day’s homily. I fell in love with him even more because of our faith and little shared traditions. We moved and no longer went to church together, except for Christmas and Easter. As years progressed and we moved again, that too stopped.
Yet Jesus followed me everywhere. I would dramatically pray and throw my hands up in the air and ask for a sign. He would always be there. A sticker of Him in a car, the Mexican maintenance man named Jesus, exclaiming, “God invented music, so if you don’t love music, it’s like you don’t love God, Man!”, a holy card of Mary given by a stranger.
Mary made her presence known when I prayed in New York for a sign, an answer, because I was lost, heartbroken, and confused. One day, I had $3 in my pocket during a run and thought I’d take an adventure into the seedy religious shop on the corner with all the candles fading in the window. The little woman who tended the shop took one look at me and handed over two holy candles. One of The Virgin of Guadalupe, the other of Saint Expeditus. “Pray to them and they will help you find what you’re searching for very quickly”. I followed her advice, figuring what the hell? and prayed for a clear path of what to do, where to go, how… Within two weeks, my life changed. I was single and on a plane to Los Angeles. The Virgin Mary and Jesus were with me then the whole time in Los Angeles, this city of angels while I began to fight my demons and come to terms that I didn’t actually know who I was any more. I prayed to Her again.
For a while I felt as though I had lost faith. I prayed to God and did not hear anything or it would be seemingly answered and taken away so quickly.
Early this year, I took out a 25 cent charm from a little shop in Silverlake which I’d never worn. I have an obsession with Religious art- Mexican, Catholic art in particular. Milagros, tin Sacred Heart, & Dia De Los Muertos symbols dot my apartment walls. So, I’m not religious. I don’t like church. Why wear this trinket? One side had Jesus, the other, The Virgin of Carmel. Somehow I found myself starting to wear it every day. If a thought or worry crossed my mind, I’d instinctively press it to my lips and ask for guidance. When traveling, it was a lucky charm.
One day, while I was attempting a run in my new neighborhood, I passed a church. The Virgin of Carmel smiled down upon me as if to say, “I’ve never left your side”. She heard my prayers while I wore that necklace, day and night, for a home I could actually afford and still be able to save money, one with cool neighbors, close to shops and restaurants and cafes, peace and quiet, and trees, yet close to the city because if I stay in the country one more day…
She heard my prayers when I asked for an answer as to why I’m not getting better.
She heard my prayers when I asked, “Well, clearly I’m not meant to get married and have a family! So can I just have a string of younger chiseled 20 something boyfriends for an ego boost and company before I go off to Nepal and Africa to help malnourished orphans, then defect to France?” …I wasn’t actually expecting an answer, yet got one. So I guess my life’s mission to help and inspire like my grandfather had, then defect to France is still to come. Perhaps I just have to finish my studies
One day at work, we all spoke of faith, prayer, and self fulfilling prophesy. My cherub of a coworker has the most impressive and humble views of religion for her young age. She keeps a red string with knots for each prayer tied to her waist as a part of her faith and religious ceremony. I started to think. Then I got inspired.
To honor the Virgin Mary for holding my hand, I started attending mass again in the church where she stands outside. No one has spoken in tongues or damned my evil, liberal ways to hell. Instead, the last theme of this year was family. In all its shapes and sizes, distance or presence, in all it’s definitions. The priest pointed out that a few of us in congregation that morning were by ourselves for whatever reason. Perhaps we had someone, but have lost them. Perhaps we prayed for a family of our own, but haven’t received it yet. I embarrassingly burst into tears. He continued that we have to accept a “no” if we receive one to our prayers because they too have purpose. Perhaps our purpose is for something else, and perhaps, that “no” is just a “not yet”. After the service, I walked back home. An older lady walked with me and we stopped to admire some flowers just scattered along the road and across an unmaintained lawn. “Aren’t they beautiful? Most people would just walk by, never seeing what’s in front of them,” she smiled. I stopped for breakfast at my new favorite café and relished in sitting alone with a book right next to the kitchen window.
Later in the morning, I went to my parents’ house where my dad proposed we all go to an impressive Buddhist temple he was curious about. It’s tangerine pagoda dominated the sky with a warm call. Walking closer, the chanting echoed and incense waded in the air. Inside was golden, warm, bright, and intimate. We were invited to join and stayed chanting and observing for an hour. I recalled how much I loved this as well. The chanting and breathing cleansed the spirit, honoring the teachings of Buddha with a quiet mind. Much like how the morning’s priest said that in order to gain happiness in life, one must embrace “no” and not to compare or envy others, for we all have our unique paths to walk; the Buddhist nun gently spoke (in Mandarin with later translation) of suffering. One must accept that suffering is a part of life and let it go. Suffering in stress, judgement of oneself and others, envy.
These common themes in spirituality and religion, to me, are what this past year have been about. I thought about writing a type of 2012 Year in Review post recounting the triumphs and challenges along the way. I set out to improve my body, mind, and spirit- to live healthfully and stop bad habits that kept me from thriving at my own optimal best. It took 11 months to learn why I was sick, malnourished, and struggled with weight. It took 7 months to lose enough weight to fit into my favorite “goal” jeans. 1 month to gain it all back, 2 more months to re-lose it. 2 infatuations, 1 short relationship, 7.25 good, incredible, and downright laughable dates and assorted flirtations, to stop associating my worth, sexuality, and self esteem as a woman with men. 8 months to gain financial independence.
What I gained in 1 morning and 34 years, was faith. Faith in God, faith in myself.